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Hung parliament would be a pain in the neck for everyone

Date

Gerard Henderson

Simon Letch

Simon Letch Illustration: Simon Letch

On Sunday, the Gary Morgan poll predicted the election would end in a hung parliament. The previous Wednesday it forecast a comfortable Labor victory. Pollsters are in the business of making predictions. Commentators, on the other hand, are well advised to avoid soothsaying.

This time around, even those who analyse the polls seem confused. Take Andrew Catsaras, whose views are published in The Australian Financial Review and who appears regularly on Meet the Press, Radio National Breakfast, and ABC2 News Breakfast. Last Sunday on Channel Ten, Catsaras declared Tony Abbott "is the best thing the Liberals have got going for them, but he is also probably the worst thing the Liberals have got going for them". It's that kind of election.

The available evidence indicates Labor is ahead overall but the Coalition is doing well in marginal seats in the outer suburban and regional areas of NSW and Queensland. Labor appears to be strong in Victoria and the Coalition in Western Australia.

Since it is likely the three independents in the House of Representatives - Bob Katter (Queensland) and Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor (NSW) - will retain their seats, it makes sense to discuss the possibility of a hung parliament.

The last time the Commonwealth had a hung parliament was in 1940. It was not a pleasant experience.

Joseph Lyons, the United Australia Party prime minister, died in office in April 1939. The UAP had no deputy leader at the time and the Country Party's Earle Page was sworn in as prime minister. Later in the month, Robert Menzies was elected UAP leader and became prime minister.

Menzies led the UAP-Country Party government to the polls in September 1940. The Coalition won 36 seats, the ALP 32 seats and the breakaway Lang Labor group four seats. There were two independents - Arthur Coles and Alexander Wilson, both of whom came from traditional non-Labor seats in Victoria.

Menzies lost the confidence of a majority of his supporters in August 1941 and stepped down as prime minister. A similar fate was experienced by Billy Hughes in 1923, John Gorton in 1971, Bob Hawke in 1991 and Kevin Rudd this year.

The Country Party's Arthur Fadden took over from Menzies as prime minister. However, political instability continued and in October 1941, the independents Coles and Wilson dumped the Coalition and switched their support to Labor. John Curtin became prime minister and went on to win the 1943 election. The Curtin Labor government provided the political stability that had been lacking during the previous year.

There were many reasons for the political failure of the first Menzies government. However, the inability of the Coalition parties to win the seats gained in 1940 by Coles in Melbourne and Wilson in the Wimmera ensured the Menzies government's poor performance.

If Abbott falls just short of an absolute majority, his position will not be dissimilar to that experienced by Menzies in 1940. In the current parliament, the three independents all hold seats once in the National Party's possession. Katter split with the Nationals while Oakeshott and Windsor gained seats once held by National Party identities Mark Vaile and Ian Sinclair respectively.

If Julia Gillard falls just short of an absolute majority, she will probably have to deal with the independents.

Alternatively, a re-elected Labor government may be able to deal with one or more members of the Greens, if that party wins a seat or seats in Melbourne and Sydney.

It is likely the independents would deal with both the Coalition and Labor. But it is unlikely the Greens would deal with the Coalition. This underlines the magnitude of the mistake the Liberal Party has made in preferencing the Greens ahead of Labor in the seats of Melbourne, Sydney and Grayndler (all of which the Greens could possibly win on Liberal preferences).

It makes no sense for the Liberals to facilitate entry into Parliament of Greens politicians, who are well to the left of Gillard Labor on economic, foreign and social policy.

In his disappointingly flat and unoriginal report on 60 Minutes on Sunday, Mark Latham commented that "in all likelihood Senator Bob Brown and his Green Party will control the next Parliament". This is an exaggeration. The Greens can only exercise a balance of power role in the Senate if they have the support of the opposition of the day (whether Coalition or Labor). But it's possible, just possible, the Greens could have a say in determining the circumstances under which Gillard could form a government.

In such an eventuality, the Greens would have the capacity to push Labor to the left. Such an outcome would be deleterious to the nation as a whole. Moreover, it would not be in the long-term interests of the Liberal Party to carry the responsibility for putting Brown and his colleagues at the centre of government - especially since the Liberals do not receive any Greens preferences.

The traditional Liberal support base is closer to the modern Labor Party than to Brown and his regulatory disciples.

The independents are not of the same mind. However, Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor give the impression of favouring greater government intervention in the economy along with special protection of, and assistance to, primary and secondary industries in their electorates.

Both Gillard and Abbott would be able to negotiate with the independents. Yet such negotiation would invariably make the task of further economic reform even more difficult than it currently is. A hung parliament would make for interesting politics, but not good government.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.

 

70 comments

  • "A hung parliament would make for interesting politics, but not good government."

    Anything would be better than letting Tony Abbott become PM.
    The "boat-phone"? Seriously? The guy is obviously quite unhinged!

    We definitely need strong representation from The Greens in parliament as an offset to the major parties who are captive to vested interests in industry (although the LNP with their backers in mining and tobacco are far more so).

    Commenter
    Think Big
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 17, 2010, 6:56AM
    • Labor will probably just get over the line, whether this result will be close enough for that mythic beast the Australian hung parliament to appear shall be revealed in due course. One thing for sure is that this outcome was unimaginable this time last year. The magnitude of this first term Labor government's inept performance is obvious to all but the one eyed party faithful.

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      August 17, 2010, 7:07AM
      • Not too sure about hanging the lot of `em Gerard...perhaps if we randomly picked just one of these here politickers every month and strung `im up, the whole parliament would realize behaving like a whammy throwing 5 year old Downer in a lolly factory is not conducive to longevity.

        Commenter
        Bob Lansdowne
        Location
        A to Zee
        Date and time
        August 17, 2010, 7:15AM
        • Oh Gerard, I think any sort of hanging would be a pain - but the little hanging sentence toward the end of your article is so typical - all those words and then the unsubstantiated core which demonstrates your ideological spin.

          "In such an eventuality, the Greens would have the capacity to push Labor to the left. Such an outcome would be deleterious to the nation as a whole"

          Commenter
          Christopher
          Location
          Central Victoria
          Date and time
          August 17, 2010, 7:17AM
          • A good summary and the reason we will not know the outcome until Saturday. There are currently very limit choices in the main parties which is why we have so many uncertain voters out there and I am not just talking about the swinging voters. Neither party has really stamped its mark with a vision, neither of the leaders has a great deal of credability. Both have made major mistakes with wastage of large amounts of our tax dollars.

            If we do have a hung parliament then very little will be done over the next 3 years. Whatever you decide Labor or Liberal give them both the houses so that they can get there policies through, otherwise we will have what we have had over the last 3 years and very little will be done.

            Commenter
            Mr C
            Location
            Penrith
            Date and time
            August 17, 2010, 7:26AM
            • I frankly don't care if you think a hung parliament will be a pain in the neck for everyone - I want to write my political science honours thesis on something!

              Commenter
              Luke
              Location
              Canberra
              Date and time
              August 17, 2010, 7:33AM
              • Better a hung Parliament than a twirling one- and that's the alternative. At least the Greens might increase the breadth of views in the chambers rather than the Tweedledee and Tweedledumbo we've got at present

                Commenter
                David
                Location
                Leongatha
                Date and time
                August 17, 2010, 7:43AM
                • In what way would the Greens pusing Labor to the left be 'deleterious to the nation'? Some possible outomes might include positive action on climate change, instead of inaction; humanitarian treatment of refugees, instead of rejection; and the divergence of non-replaceable mining wealth into future Australian development, instead of repatriated profits. These outcomes seem to me like part of the vision which is missing from both major parties.

                  Commenter
                  Leftie
                  Location
                  Artarmon
                  Date and time
                  August 17, 2010, 7:57AM
                  • Interesting article Gerard. I think a hung parliament certainly would make for good politics, and good newspaper sales.

                    Commenter
                    Tomboy
                    Location
                    Sydney
                    Date and time
                    August 17, 2010, 8:19AM
                    • Whilst past experiences of hung parliaments can be a guide to what may happen if another occurs nobody can say with any certainty how this likely group will play out. The Greens in the Senate do have a track record & a broad far left agenda beyond their headline environmental focus. House of Representative preference deals are a joke. How to Vote leaflets are suggestions only. With both major parties on the nose it is likely more people will protest & give their first votes to local Independents & minor parties until the major parties receive the last 2 available spots. This may actually force more seats marginal & lead to more accountable govt amongst local MPs as they can't rest on their laurels every term.
                      With programs such as the BER & pink batts failing greater scrutiny by Independents committed to improving the parliamentary process may have prevented some of these failures.
                      As a member of an Independent political group which is committed to these principles we would encourage the current Independents to do likewise when re-elected. http://aim4integrity.com/ See the 5 tests here.

                      Commenter
                      Martin
                      Location
                      Sydney
                      Date and time
                      August 17, 2010, 8:23AM

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